I once set a house on fire.

It was a Victorian ranch house that needed a lot of paint stripped off before it could be painted. I was new to the genre of older home repainting, having begun my career in Kent Woodlands in Marin County where the homes were newer and most were stained instead of painted.

But I knew enough that the old, cracked paint on the farm house had to come off, so I began burning it off with a torch. This time-honored method presented obvious problems, so I kept a garden hose with nozzle and a five-gallon bucket of water nearby just in case. Late one morning, Phyllis, the lady of the house, returned from shopping and, when I offered to help her carry in her groceries, she invited me to stay for coffee.

After several minutes of pleasant conversation, she asked, “Is that fog going by out there or is that smoke?” I bolted from my seat and ran to the front of the house. Flames were shooting out of a basketball sized hole on the front porch. I doused the fire but it was in the wall going up to the attic. I knew I was on my own because the volunteer fire department was many miles away. I used a pick ax from the garden shed to open up the siding and then reached into the stud wall and sprayed upward with water The water hit the burning embers in the wall sending an explosion of steam down to scald my hand. I knew I had no choice but to continue spraying inside the wall. About the time I  concluded the fire was out, Phyllis asked, “would you like a valium?” The fire department showed up forty-five minutes later. The fire had not reached the attic but to our surprise it had filled the living room with smoke — while we drank coffee!!

My insurance covered the loss and I painted the inside as well as the outside of the house. I abandoned the torch and developed my own method of chemical paint stripping which ultimately led to a career of older home repainting. The job went on for months and I became a friend of the family. When her daughter, Cathy, turned sixteen, Phyllis drove me into town to drive back her birthday present, a brand new Camaro.



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